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The planters of the Delta, on their transfer to Spanish domination, saw indigo, the chief product of their lands, shut out of market. French protection was lost and French ports were closed to them. Those of Spain received them only into ruinous competition with the better article made in the older and more southern Spanish colonies. By and by kinder commercial regulations offered a certain relief; but then new drawbacks began to beset them. Season after season was unfavorable, and at length an insect appeared which, by the years 1793-94, was making such ravages that the planters were in despair. If they could not make indigo they knew not what to do for a livelihood.
They had tried myrtle-wax and silk, and had long ago given them up. Everybody made a little tobacco, but the conditions were not favorable for a large crop in the Delta. Cotton their grandfathers had known since 1713. The soil and climate above Orleans Island suited it, and it had always been raised in moderate quantity. M. Debreuil, a wealthy townsman of New Orleans and a landholder, a leading mind among the people, had invented a cotton-gin effective enough to induce a decided increase in the amount of cotton raised in the colony. Yet a still better mode of ginning the staple from the seed was needed to give the product a decided commercial value. There was some anticipation of its possible importance, and certain ones who gave the matter thought had, in 1760, recommended the importation of such apparatus as could be found in India. In 1768 cotton had become an article of export from New Orleans, and in the manifesto with which the insurgents banished Ulloa it is mentioned as a product whose culture, “improved by experience, promised the planter the recompense of his toils.”
At the time of the collapse in the indigo production, the Creoles were still experimenting with cotton; but the fame of Eli Whitney’s newly invented cotton-gin had probably not reached them. There must have been few of them, indeed, who supposed that eight years later the cotton crop of Louisiana and export from New Orleans would be respectively 20,000 and 34,000 300-pound bales. They turned for a time in another direction. The lower Delta was a little too far south for cotton as a sure crop. They would try once more, as their fathers had tried, to make merchantable sugar.
On a portion of the city’s present wholesale business district, near Tchoupitoulas Street, this great staple had been first planted in Louisiana by the Jesuit fathers in 1751. They had received their seed, or rather layers, from St. Domingo. It had been grown in the town’s vicinity ever since, but there only, and in trivial quantity. Nothing more than syrup, if even so much, was made from it until in 1758 M. Debreuil, the same who had experimented with cotton, built a sugar-mill on his plantation-now that part of the third district adjoining the second, on the river-front-and endeavored to turn a large crop of cane into sugar.
Accounts of the result vary. Sugar, it seems, however, was made, and for a time the industry grew. But the sugar was not of a sort to ship to the world’s markets; it was poorly granulated and very wet, and for several years was consumed within the province. In 1765 the effort was at length made to export it to France; but half the first cargo leaked out of the packages before the vessel could make port.
Then came the cession to Spain, and with it paralysis. The half-developed industry collapsed. But in 1791 the blacks of St. Domingo rose in rebellion. Refugees flew in every direction. A few found their way to Louisiana. They had been prosperous sugar-makers, and presently the efforts that had ceased for twenty-five years came again to life. Two Spaniards, Mendez and Solis, in that year erected on the confines of New Orleans, the one a distillery and the other a battery of sugar-kettles, and manufactured rum and syrup.
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Still the Creoles, every year less able than the year before to make rash experiments, struggled against the misfortunes that multiplied around the cultivation of indigo, until 1794 found them without hope.
At this juncture appeared Etienne de Boré. He was a man of fifty-four, a Creole of the Illinois district, but of a distinguished Norman family; he had lived in France from the age of four to thirty-two, had served with the king’s mousquetaires, had married a lady whose estate was in Louisiana near New Orleans, and returning with her to the province, had become an indigo planter. The year 1794 found him face to face with ruin. His father-in-law, Destrehan, had in former years been one of the last to abandon sugar culture. His wife and friends warned him against the resolution he was taking; but he persisted in his determination to abandon indigo, and risk all that was left to him on the chance of a success which, if achieved, would insure deliverance and fortune to himself and the commununity. He bought a quantity of canes from Mendez and Solis, planted on the land where the Seventh District (late Carrollton) now stands, and while his crop was growing erected a mill, and prepared himself for the momentous season of “grinding.”
His fellow-planters looked on with the liveliest-not always with the most hopeful-interest, and at length they gathered about hint to see the issue of the experiment in which only he could be more deeply concerned than they. In the whole picturesque history of the Louisiana Creoles few scenes offer so striking a subject for the painter as that afforded in this episode: The dark sugarhouse; the battery of huge caldrons, with their yellow juice boiling like a sea, half-hidden in clouds of steam; the half-clad, shining negroes swinging the gigantic utensils with which the seething flood is dipped from kettle to kettle ; here, grouped at the end of the battery, the Creole planters with anxious faces drawing around their central figure as closely as they can; and in the midst the old mousquetaire, dipping, from time to time, the thickening juice, repeating again and again his simple tests, until, in the moment of final trial, there is a common look of suspense, and instantly after it the hands are dropped, heads are raised, the brow is wiped, and there is a long breath of relief- “it granulates!”
The people were electrified. Etienne de Boré marketed $,12,000 worth of superior sugar. The absence of interdictions that had stifled earlier trade enabled him to sell his product to advantage. The agriculture of the Delta was revolutionized; and, seven years afterward, New Orleans was the market for 200,000 gallons of rum, 250,000 gallons of molasses, and 5,000,000 pounds of sugar. The town contained some twelve distilleries–probably not a subject for unmixed congratulation–and a sugar refinery which produced about 200,000 pounds of loaf sugar; while on the other hand the production of indigo had declined to a total of 3,000 pounds, and soon after ceased.